The Concept of Privilege

Recently in working with a group of senior leaders in an accounting firm, one of the baby boomer white males said to me:  “I have learned in my journey of understanding regarding diversity in our profession that I was born on third base, yet all my life I have thought I hit a triple”.

This comment is the simplest representation of the concept of privilege that I have encountered in all my years of working on diversity and inclusion solutions. The AICPA, accounting firms and the profession as a whole is concerned about diversity in the profession because the demographics have shifted and continue to shift much more quickly than our profession is responding.  Diversity and inclusion is not about having “representation” of various dimensions of diversity in our staff and leadership teams.  The goal is to maximize the diversity of thought and approach that people with different backgrounds bring to the challenges and opportunities facing our profession today.  The goal is also to mitigate the crisis of succession planning in the profession.

Returning to the quote above that references the concept of “privilege”.   We are not working on diversity by giving certain groups of people an “advantage” over others, or building some new type of “entitlement” program.  We are looking very seriously at the ways in which the current playing field is already not level.  One of these playing field concepts is privilege.  Something as simple as being born with the understanding that you will attend college.  Having access to multiple people who have attended college or plan to attend college. Having people of influence in your life believe you will attend college and succeed.  Having an instant layer of credibility with influential leaders in an organization because of the school you went to, fraternity you belong to, fact that you did not work while in college but devoted your time and talents to your grade point average and passing the exam.  The privilege of reminding those you interview with of themselves when they were your age, as a result receiving the benefit of the doubt on your nervousness, while then benefiting from the extended belief that you “fit” with the culture and those who have come before you. All of this taking place before you begin your first day of work and continuing as you are considered for assignments and other professional opportunities.

The concept of “Privilege” does not suggest that those who have succeeded in the profession have not earned their place.  It does ask us to consider that not all journeys contain the same level of privilege and that the differences profoundly impact who succeeds and who does not.  Those who represent various dimensions of diversity often must travel a very different path before they ever reach the point where others have started.  In some cases and some organizations, their path is forever longer and more complex than those who enter with a set of privileges most like the leadership majority.  In many ways our current business model is geared towards those who have followed a journey that involves certain privileges.

Lack of access to people of influence, learning opportunities, certain universities, unfettered study time. Instant credibility, acceptance and access through immediate affinity are also examples of privilege and scratch the surface of what we can learn about the journey of others. Much of this may be invisible to us today.  Becoming aware of privileges some enjoy that others must earn for themselves is an important early step to realizing why the ranks of our profession lack diversity, particularly at the leadership levels.   Start now by spending time thinking about and talking with others about the similarities and differences in your journeys relative to privilege.  Where was your starting point?

About the author

Mary BennetMary has spent the majority of her career as a partner in a top ten firm.  Mary now works as a consultant to public accounting firms in all areas related to organizational development and effectiveness.  Mary’s expertise includes diversity and inclusion, executive coaching, business performance, and leadership development as well as many other areas of organizational effectiveness.

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